SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Cubs have tough bullpen decisions coming up, centered around their middle and multi-inning relievers, as they weigh who will make the Opening Day roster.
In general, Opening Day roster decisions don’t mean much in the long run. As manager David Ross pointed out earlier this spring, lefty Brandon Hughes wasn’t even in major-league camp last year, and he became one of the Cubs’ most reliable relievers in the second half of 2022.
When opt outs come into play, however, the Opening Day roster matters. Reliever Mark Leiter Jr., who played his first game in a week and a half on Saturday, has an opt-out clause in his non-roster invite deal that he can trigger before Opening Day.
Leiter had been held out after testing positive for COVID-19. On Saturday, he allowed one run, his first all spring, in the eighth inning of the Cubs’ 5-1 loss. Leiter has limited opponents to four hits in five spring training appearances this year.
“He’s got a really good understanding of why he had success in the second half last year,” bullpen coach Chris Young said in a conversation with the Sun-Times, “and he’s taken that and continued to grow on it this spring.”
Since midway through last year, Leiter, a former starter, has embraced a bullpen role. In the last two months of the season, he posted a 2.39 ERA and earned the first three saves of his career.
“It was really just about learning how to get into your best sequences and never really settling,” Leiter said of the transition.
Leiter’s opt-out clause essentially functioned as a fail-safe when he re-signed with the Cubs on a NRI deal this past offseason. The Cubs had removed him from the 40-man roster in the weeks before, and he cleared waivers.
Entering camp with no roster spot and no minor-league options can put a player at a disadvantage when competing to break with the team. But an opt-out helps even the scales and at least gives the player a mechanism to avoid being stashed in the minors.
If the Cubs don’t put Leiter on the roster, they’ll likely lose him. If they do, they’ll have to find a way to clear a 40-man roster spot for him.
The last week and a half of spring training will also be important for monitoring multi-inning reliever Keegan Thompson’s progression. The Cubs see shortening Thompson’s recovery time in between shorter outings as the next step for the former starter. But his velocity has been down this spring, a trend the team is keeping tabs on. The Cubs have downplayed any potential injury concern.
“As a group, we’re trying to get him to get back to moving like he was last year, which he’s done a really good job of,” Young said. “He’s done a really good job in his bullpens, in side sessions, catch play, of getting his body back moving. And now that he’s moving well again, I think he feels really comfortable. And so I think he’s able to start getting back into his legs and start stepping on the gas again.”
Thompson is scheduled to pitch again Sunday, with just two days between outings for the first time.
“There’s multiple roles he can fill, right?” Young said. “He’s had so much success in the multiple inning role. As a group, we think in a one-inning sprint he can be really good, too. So the plan is always evolving with him based off of where he’s at in his progressions and how we can get him to where he needs to get to.”
If the Cubs start out Thompson in a single-inning role, or if his progress stalls for whatever reason, the team may have room for another high-leverage multi-inning reliever alongside Adbert Alzolay.
Right-handers Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad and Adrian Sampson began camp competing for the fifth starter spot, but the two who don’t make the Opening Day rotation are lined up to either move to the bullpen or serve as depth in Triple-A.
The Cubs have built up several other relievers enough to at least come out for a second inning. In Michael Rucker’s last two outings, he threw 1 ⅔ and 1 ⅓ innings. Julian Merryweather, who the Cubs claimed off waivers this winter, threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings against Colorado earlier this week.
“One thing this organization has done a really good job of is give us a lot of options to choose from,” Young said. “… And a lot of these guys are in a really good place.”